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A local history and genealogy site for Wimpole, a village and parish in South Cambridgeshire.
Curated by Steve Odell.

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Ermine Street
'Earninga Straete' (Anglo Saxon 1012)
A local history and genealogy page for the Parish of Wimpole.

Ermine Street - A Brief History
The small village of Arrington sits astride an important Roman road, Ermine Street, an ancient highway of historical, cultural and touristic interest which has played a significant role in English history.
Ermine Street also forms [mostly] the western boundary of the Parish of Wimpole with its neighbour the Parish of Arrington. Apart from a small detour around the back of the eastern edge of Arrington village, the modern Arrington/Wimpole parish boundary follows the A1198 for the two and three-quarter miles from Arrington Bridge to Coombe Grove Farm. The exact line of the boundary meanders between both the eastern and the western edges of the carriageway but Ermine Street is almost as much Wimpole's road as it is Arrington's.
Roman Times
The original road was Roman, and construction is thought to have began around 43 AD. The road was an important military and trade route and ran 200 miles (322km) from Bishopsgate in London (Londinium), northwards through Ware, Royston, Arrington, Godmanchester, and Ancaster to Lincoln (Lindum) and onwards to York (Eboracum), crossing the River Humber at Brough. It remained "one of the great roads of England" until modern times.
Roman roads were well constructed with a paved surface. Ermine Street would have allowed quick efficient travel for military leaders, high dignitaries, merchants travelling on business, civil servants, commercial traffic, foodstuffs moving towards the towns from the countryside, wares from local workshops, and the distribution and delivery of raw materials to small local industries.
Rome's legions would have marched this way too, on their way up to York and Hadrian's Wall.
There was a Roman settlement along Ermine Street at Arrington Bridge at the strategically important and defensible ford crossing of the River Rhee [tributary of the River Cam]. There has been some speculation that the Roman settlement was a Mutation (basic horse-changing station with some accommodations) or even a Mansio (luxury accommodation and general facilities for travellers) although the archaeological evidence is currently somewhat debatable.
The ford through the Rhee and the Roman settlement were situated some 200 yards south of the important road junction between Ermine Street and Akeman Street (A603), another Roman road that ran north-eastwards to the settlement at Cambridge [Duroliponte] and on to the Isle of Ely. This road junction (where the Wimpole and Arrington War Memorial is situated) was closed off in 1990 following completion of a new roundabout a little to the north.
continued below

Roman Road Network
Location of Wimpole in relation to the Roman Road network

Saxon Road
We do not even know whether our Roman road had a Roman name. 'Ermine' is of Anglo-Saxon origin (in 1012 'Earninga Straete'). The names Arrington and Ermine are both derived from the Earningas, a group or tribe of people who lived in Armingford [ancient district roughly covering Arrington, East Hatley, Steeple Morden, Royston, Melbourn, Whaddon, Wimpole and points between] in Saxon and Medieval times
Ermine Street also became one of the four main highways of saxon England and can be traced back in documents to at least 955 AD. The strategic ford at Arrington was probably the meeting-place, or moot, of the Armingford Hundred [a sort of Saxon local parliament]. It is believed the first bridge across the River Rhee was built around 1285.
Road Upkeep
In the thousand years after the Romans left, the road structure probably disintegrated into little more than a wide muddy track. Badly maintained, if at all, the surface would have been dry and dusty in summer - wet, muddy and frequently impassible in winter. What little upkeep the road received would have been organised by local landowners to maintain their own passage to towns and markets.
People would have usually travelled on horseback or by foot since coach or wagon travel was difficult in all but the driest weather. Most goods and even large quantities of industrial raw materials had to be transported by trains of pack horses since wagons tended to become mired down in the muddy soil of Cambridgeshire.
In 1555 Parliament ordered that the upkeep and care of roads was to be devolved to the parishes as statute labour. Every adult inhabitant of Arrington and Wimpole would have been obliged to work four consecutive days a year maintaining Ermine Street and Akeman Street, providing their own tools, carts and horses. The work was overseen by an unpaid local appointee, the Surveyor of Highways.
It was not until 1654 that road rates were introduced. However, the improvements to the roads offered by the introduction of paid labour were offset by the rise in the use of wheeled vehicles greatly increasing wear to the road surfaces. The government reaction to this was to use legislation to limit the use of wheeled vehicles and also to regulate their construction. An optimistic hope that wider rims would be less damaging briefly led to carts with sixteen inch wide wheels trundling through Arrington. They did not cause ruts but neither did they roll and flatten the road as was hoped.
Major Turnpike and Coaching Route
In 1663, Ermine Street was designated as the first turnpike road in Britain, whereby travellers paid tolls to pass through toll gates and the income used for road upkeep.
In the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, Ermine Street, or the Great North Road, became "the most important turnpike in England", being the busy stage-coach route between London and York.
The first regular coach route between London and York had began in 1706 and it came
through Arrington. These early coaches were referred to as 'flying coaches' by the stage companies, although 'flying' was perhaps more hope over reality. By 1734, it still took 10 days to travel from London to Edinburgh.
In 1784, the stage coaches began to carry the Royal Mail and the best and the fastest coaches were known as Mail Coaches. Everything on the road was expected to get out of their way [the approaching sound of the coaching horn giving advance warning to clear the road) and the coaches would have been a familiar sight (and sound) to local parishioners.
Coaching inns provided a support structure for coach routes. 'The Hardwicke Arms' (originally 'The Tiger') in Arrington became known as one of the finest coaching inns on Ermine Street, ending the first horse drawn 'stage' north of Royston.
Fresh teams of horses were kept at 'The Hardwicke Arms' in readiness for changing the exhausted team that had just run the previous stage of the journey. The teams of horses were contracted to stage lines or the Royal Mail, although other horses were available to be leased by individuals. The Inn's hostlers prided themselves in changing teams of horses in as little as three minutes.
The coming of the railways from around 1840 ended the golden era of the English stage coach, except in out-lying regions.
Modern Times
Ermine Street, the Great North Road, increasingly became the Old North Road, and gradually lost its importance during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as modern transport and communication systems were developed. Designated the A14 in 1923, "one of the great roads of England" was quietly downgraded to the rather prosaic A1198 in the 1990s.
Our 'stretch' of Ermine Street is named "Ermine Way" where it borders Wimpole and passes through Arrington.
Ermine Street remained the major road and route north out of London for nearly 2000 years. The history and location of Wimpole and Arrington is inextricably interweaved with the history of Ermine Street.
Steve Odell

In a nostalgic Essay written in 1914 by the Rev Alexander Campbell Yorke remembered his childhood at Wimpole Rectory, "The Old North Road past the Gates was known to my father [Henry Reginald Yorke 1802-1871, Rector of Wimpole and brother of the 4th Earl of Hardwicke] in his boyhood, while he was at Harrow."
"It was then (circa 1817-1820) infra dig for a Harrow boy to wear a greatcoat. In the depth of winter, on an outside [mail coach] seat, my father has travelled from Edinburgh to London without a greatcoat. The only concession allowed to human weakness was that the British boy might put on two starched shirts."
"It was within his knowledge, although I do not think he claimed to have been a passenger, that galloping down Arrington Hill to the change at The Hardwicke Arms, the coach ran into a mob of cattle. One of the great beasts was lying down right in the road; and, before he was up, the coach was atop of him; The beast gave a heave, and over went coach and passengers into the ditch."
[from "Wimpole As I Knew It"]

The Hardwicke Arms, c1920
Arrington: Ermine Way and 'The Hardwicke Arms' c1920
[From an early postcard image in my collection]

This page was last updated on: 11 November 2019.

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